10 March, 2015

Salem Witches and More DNA

Surely my ancestors who resided in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century would have branded me a witch for claiming that information gleaned from my blood has helped me to name my ancestors! Yet that is what seems to have happened.

I do not claim to have definitively solved the mystery, but my dna evidence has provided some indication that I am on the right track in this instance. The question I was struggling with was an ancestor whose name was Elizabeth Walpee or 
Elizabeth Valpey/Valpy or possibly both names used interchangeably. 

Elizabeth was born about 1761 and married a man by the name of John Lilley in Marblehead (next door to Salem) in 1789. Their daughter Nancy Lilley married a Hersey, my maternal grandmother's family, and lived in Salem. Some on ancestry say that Elizabeth's parents were John Walpee and Mary __. Indeed there is a birth record of this Elizabeth born in Marblehead and the marriage record to John Lilley names Elizabeth Walpee as the bride. However, the daughter Nancy's death record has, in clear handwriting, the name Elizabeth Valpey as the mother.

To make a long story short, I came to the conclusion that this Elizabeth was not the child of John Walpee and Mary, but the daughter of Abraham Valpey and Lydia Clough, who also had a daughter Elizabeth in about 1760. She was presumably born in Salem as that was where the parents were born and lived. However, I had no records other than Nancy Lilley's death record to prove this identity of Elizabeth. Since Elizabeth's great x3 grandmother was the accused witch Elizabeth Carrington, I wanted to firm this link up, if at all possible.
Salem today

First, as to the name confusion, there are a few possible explanations to consider. Walpee and Valpey/Valpy are often found on the same document as alternate names for the same person. This indicates that the family probably used both surnames. 

There is something called a "dit" name (pronounced "dee" from the French word "to say") where a family takes on a second name or spelling to differentiate themselves from other branches of their family, or because it has been mis-spelled that way in records, or simply because it is a simpler spelling or pronunciation. For example, a document might say "Edward Walpee, dit Valpey" which would mean "Edward Walpee, aka Valpey".

These "dit" names were common among immigrants with French heritage. While I have seen the name Valpey as having derived from the Italian Volpi, it could very well have been a French name, such as Volpé or Volpée as well. A third possibility is that it was of German or Dutch origin, where the letter W has a V sound. This would explain the use of "Walpee" and transition to Valpy/Valpey. However, considering the other surnames associated with the Valpey family in England, and the fact that French Huguenots fled to the Channel Islands where these Valpeys lived, they were probably French. (associated surnames include Hamon, Coutanche, le Gallais)

I decided, after fruitless searches for records, to try another method. I went to my dna matches database and narrowed the list of matches by putting the various surnames of Elizabeth's parents, grandparents and beyond into the search box, ending up with lists of people whose dna matches mine AND who have these surnames on their family trees.

I found no people who are dna matches to me who have the name of Walpee on their tree. Although I also have not found any dna matches who share the Valpey/Valpy name, I have found dozens of dna matches who share common surnames in the right towns  and even exact individual ancestors belonging to Elizabeth Valpey's parents, grandparents and beyond.

Some of these include, from her mother's side, the names Clough, Page, Merrill, and Reeves, and from her father's side the names Hamon, Fowle, Paine, Ingersoll, Carrington, Thrower, and Felton. Again, these are not simply common surnames, but matches from the same towns and, in many cases, exact shared individuals in Elizabeth Valpey's line with lines from dna matches of mine.

It is unlikely that my dna would coincidentally be matched with so many others who have names and individuals in Elizabeth Valpey's ancestral lines in their trees without Elizabeth having been an ancestor of mine as well. So, while this does not conclusively prove that Elizabeth Valpey was the daughter of Abraham Valpey and Lydia Clough and the mother of Nancy Lilley, it does offer significant dna evidence that points in that direction. For now, it remains that way on my tree.

More about the "witch" in future post!


  1. I'm a Valpy descendant, and have no record of an Elizabeth Valpey as daughter of Abraham and Lydia. Only a Lydia Valpey who married Robert Phippen.

  2. Thank-you Rupert! Yes, I've since discovered this and found that Abraham's brother Benjamin who married Abigail Pittman/Pitman (first wife of 2) had a daughter Elizabeth and she appears to be my ancestor. Nice to meet you, cousin!